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McGUINESS: Safety requires moving forward with highway overhaul

May 4, 2018

mcguinness-joe-viewpointA dialogue about Indianapolis’ interstates has taken shape in recent months, calling for the city and state to reimagine and rethink our current downtown interstate system.

The Indiana Department of Transportation anticipated that a project involving the interchange of two major highways in our capital city would be of great public interest, and the community’s interest in the north-split project has been significant.

Downtown Indianapolis has been booming in recent years. Indianapolis’ Mile Square alone hosts 150,000 daytime employees. How are those people traveling to their jobs each day? It’s no surprise that many are using the I-65/I-70 interstate system.

The north-split interchange, where I-65 and I-70 converge and then split, serves more than 214,000 vehicles per day, and the individual links of I-65 and I-70 downtown carry 109,000 to 161,000 vehicles per day. These links serve the highest employment concentration in the state, with 25 entrances and exit ramps serving all sections of downtown.

As a point of comparison, U.S. 31 in Hamilton County carries about 88,000 cars daily near 106th Street and West Street carries about 38,000 daily. The north split is the second-most-heavily traveled interchange in Indiana, and the need for repairs in and near the north-split interchange is based on the deteriorated condition of the bridges and existing pavement.

In response to feedback from the community, INDOT initiated a system-level analysis to assess the performance, cost and impact of concepts for I-65 and I-70 through downtown. The results of that analysis were made public May 3.

Surprising even to the team performing the analysis is just how much of the I-65 and I-70 traffic downtown is driving all the way through the area: less than 10 percent during peak periods. This means 90 percent of the daily traffic on the downtown interstate system is drivers choosing Indianapolis as their work, residence and/or recreational destination.

Public safety, for the hundreds of thousands of motorists using the interstate, and for those who travel by car, bike or foot on the streets underneath, is the number one reason INDOT needs to address the north-split interchange now—and not postpone any longer.

There were 1,656 recorded crashes in the north-split project area from 2012 to 2016. The primary type of crash was “rear-ends,” which may be attributed to congestion conditions on the interstate. The secondary type of crash was “sideswipes,” which may be attributed to congested interstates and challenging weaving movements.

Increased use and the age of the roadways are concerns for officials. Each of the 32 bridges has deteriorating components, and 11 have only two to five years of life remaining. In addition, the pavement throughout the interchange is well beyond its life span and needs constant repair to remain safe and functional. Wasted space under the bridges is currently taking up valuable real estate that could be used for pedestrians, bicyclists and enhancements.

Creating and maintaining roads that serve the increasing number of families choosing to live downtown—along with the increasing numbers of commuters, tourists and visitors—is an exciting challenge. Accommodating safety, livability, economic development, connectivity, multi-modal transportation and aesthetics, all while being good stewards of taxpayer dollars, is a delicate balancing act.

We are at a point where action must be taken to address public safety. Our goal is a north-split interchange that meets the purpose and need of those who use it, while improving the area for those who live around it.•

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McGuinness is commissioner of the Indiana Department of Transportation.

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